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English translation 2006 M.E. Sharpe, Inc., from the Russian text Znak i
deiatelnost, in Iazyk i rechevaia deiatelnostv obshchei i pedagogicheskoi
psikhologii (Moscow and Voronezh: IPO MODEK, 2001), pp. 3345. Published
with the permission of Dmitry A. Leontiev.
Translated by Nora Favorov.
Notes renumbered for this edition.Ed.
Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, vol. 44, no. 3,
MayJune 2006, pp. 1729.
2006 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 10610405/2006 $9.50 + 0.00.
DOI 10.2753RPO10610405440302
A.A. LEONTIEV
Sign and Activity
The goal of this article is to provide an analysis of a category of
meaning outside the system of any particular science (and cer-
tainly not from the perspective of any particular scientific prob-
lem), but within a more general system, suitable to an integrated
approach toward language, speech, and speech activity. The ne-
cessity of such an integrated approach is increasingly evident both
on the theoretical level and in the framing and solving of applied
problems. The external expression of this necessity is the birth of
such international scientific disciplines as psycholinguistics,
sociolinguistics, and ethnolinguistics, among others.
The movement of scientific thought along the path of an inte-
grated analysis of speech activity is hindered, however (among other
difficulties), by the vagueness of a number of basic concepts, the
logical consequence of which is the shifting of the interpretation of
these concepts, provided within the framework of a specific science
(usually linguistics), to a more general theoretical context, and from
this stems the limitation of their treatment. This primarily effects
the concept of meaning, a concept that is central not only to lin-
guistics but also to psychology, logic, and semiotics. Only once
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we have defined meaning as an object category of the science of
man will we have the right to undertake its interpretation within
the framework of a particular field, as something to which we ap-
ply scientific methods of investigation.
Such an analytical path is all the more desirable when we ad-
dress psycholinguistic problems associated with meaning. As is
well known, in Soviet science, psycholinguistics from the very
beginning takes the form of a theory of speech activity. It views
speech as one of the types of activity (along with other types such
as labor, cognitive, and mnemonic activity, etc.), and strives to
apply the study of speech to those propositions and categories that
have been developed within the general theory of activity, both in
its social and psychological aspects.
In this case, our task consists in applying an approach based on
the perspective of activity theory to a more general circle of ques-
tions associated with the category of meaning, and discovering
the factors involved in the emergence and mode of functioning of
meaning within the system of human social activity.
We encounter the concept of activity at the very start of our analysis
of meaning, when we raise the question of the relationship between
meaning and the sign. As works by Soviet philosophers show,
1
the
problem of the sign in its interpretation, from the perspective of the
theory of reflection, is inseparable from the problem of the so-called
ideal, or quasi-object. As is well known, the ideal object (quasi-
object) arises in social activity as the transformed form of true con-
nections and relations. These connections and relations are transferred
onto a material object that is alien to them by its nature, or are taken
into it, and are replaced by other relations that blend with the prop-
erties of this object, and serve as its properties and features. The
apparent form of true relations takes their place; the direct reflec-
tion of content in form becomes impossible. An example is the
monetary form, which is the form of transformed goods. For this
reason, a tremendously important gnoseological problem arises: in
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analyzing the quasi-object as a converted form* of true connections
and relations, how is it possible to isolate in it what arises from its
substance, from its own uniqueness, its features and properties,
from what is transferred onto it and has been transformed in it.
Language is the system of such ideal or quasi-objectslinguistic
signswhere real relationships are replaced with their apparent
form, where the real properties and relationships of the objects
and phenomena of reality, actualized in activity involving these
objects and phenomena, wind up being taken and moved into a
new (linguistic) substance, and are filled with the materiality and
properties of language. As in a number of other cases, here the
materiality of quasi-objects prompts the emergence of fancies of
consciousness: we often immediately correlate language with the
objects and phenomena of the external world forgetting that be-
tween them there is no direct and unequivocal correlation, and
that rigorous scientific analysis of the nature of any quasi-object
demands an intermediate link, which was first introduced by Marx:
the system of social activity.
What is given to our consciousness, through immediate observa-
tion of and reflection on language, what in language presents itself
to consciousness, hardly begins to cover the essence of language.
For this reason, a one-sided semiotic and a one-sided linguistic ap-
proach to language, however subtle their analysis might be, are
fundamentally incapable of discovering its essence.
The concept of the quasi-object as the converted form of real
*Merab Mamardashvili (1970) introduced the concept of converted form to
denote the processes of transition of some content from one substrate to another.
The features of the content change in the course of this transition according to
the properties of the substrate. An illustration can be borrowed from the psychol-
ogy of art. When you try to transform a novel into a movie, even if you plan to
maintain the content as close as possible to the original work, you cant do it
without some important changes. Indeed, the substrate, the film, imposes some
limitations and offers some new possibilities.Dmitry A. Leontiev.
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relationships is inseparable from the Marxist interpretation of the
concept of the ideal. From this perspective, the linguistic sign, as
the quasi-object, is the immediate body of the ideal image of an
external thing.
2
Having its own sensory nature, the sign at the
same time serves as a component part of a system of forms, and a
means of external expression and a capturing of the ideal phenom-
ena that are generally accepted, and whose meanings are gener-
ally agreed upon. And here again it is important to emphasize that
the ideal itself has immediate existence only as the form (means,
an image) of activity of the social person. . . . The ideal can under
no circumstances be equated with the state of the material found
under an individuals cranium. . . . The ideal is a special function
of man, as the subject of social-labor activity.
3
The concept of the sign must also be introduced (as distinct
from the concept of the quasi-object), as an implication of such an
understanding of the ideal. If, in principle, the quasi-object has, as
Marx said, its material existence, then being used as the body
of an ideal image, in a certain sense, loses this materiality. Ac-
cording to Marx, in signs, functional existence . . . so to speak,
absorbs its material existence:
4
a thing in its material existence
and functional properties is transformed into a sign, that is, into
an object that has no meaning in and of itself, but merely repre-
sents, expresses another object, with which it has nothing imme-
diately in common, such as, for example, the name of a thing and
the thing itself.
5
In light of the above, it is obvious that in the practice of scien-
tific research the single term sign serves three different purposes.
First, there is the sign as a thing oras it applies to languageas
a material linguistic body incorporated into the activity of man;
in this sense, we will refer hereafter to the sign. Second, there is
the sign as the equivalent of the real sign in everyday conscious-
ness; this concept will be referred to as the sign image. Third, a
sign is the product of the scientific conceptualization of the struc-
ture and functions of the objective signthe model of the sign or
the sign model.
These three purposes, as a rule, have not been clearly distin-
guished or have not been distinguished at all in the course of analy-
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sis, giving rise not only to terminological homonymy, but also to a
fundamental confusion.
Let us return now to the problem of meaning. From what was
stated above it follows that the sign (in the sense of the term just
mentioned) has a material side (its body) and that it has an ideal
weight that is expressed and anchored in this body. The ideal
aspect of the sign is not reducible to a subjects subjective concep-
tion of the content of the sign image, but it also does not represent
real objectivity or those real properties and features of objects and
phenomena that stand behind the sign (the quasi-object). The para-
dox is that, existing before and beyond a particular sign, these
properties may be regarded as meaning only after they have been
transformed, that is, after we introduce the quasi-object with its
own content characteristics: extralinguistic meaning does not
exist, and at the same time sign meaning is not a simple copy of
real connections and relationships. The ideal aspect of a sign is the
result of transference, of transformation, in the Marxist sense,
of connections and relationships of actual reality that take place in
the process of activity.
Objectively, the sign stands before the subject as a real sign
with all that underlies it, including all its functional characteris-
tics, which are determined by the special features of activity into
which this sign is incorporated. But, subjectively, a sign is per-
ceived as a sort of psychological formation in which actual social
content of this sign is blended and transformed. The conscious-
ness of the subject in this case remains a contemplating con-
sciousness, and from his perspective the sign appears as a sign
image, and meaning, as the form in which he fixes and experi-
ences his own social experience, without assigning himself the
task of penetrating its true roots and true nature. This is the path
taken by most researchers regarding meaning, working not with
the real sign, but with the sign image, and not reflecting, or only
reflecting in part, those sign properties in which the socially
conditioned manner of its functioning is expressed, its functional
existence
6
onto the corresponding sign model.
Thus, several interconnected, but by no means identical, cat-
egories are correlated with what is intuitively understood as mean-
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ing. First, there is the system of connections and relationships be-
tween objects and phenomena of reality that exists beyond and
before the individual sign; we will call this system the objective
content of the sign. Second, the ideal weight of the sign, the
ideal aspect of it, which is the converted form of the objective
content, we will call the ideal content of the sign. Third, there is
the social experience of the subject, projected onto the sign im-
age, or, as we will refer to it, the subjective content of the sign (the
sign image).
Until now, stretching things somewhat, we have kept to the
level of the isolated sign. Obviously, this is a mere convention:
both signs objectivelyin a persons activityand subjectively
in his consciousnessserve as an integrated system, as a sign
system.
The first question this raises is the following: to what extent do
we have the right to talk about the existence of an objective-social
system of signs? To put it another way, to what extent does the
concept of a sign system correlate with the concepts of objective
and ideational sign content that we introduced above? It is com-
pletely obvious that as it applies to objects and phenomena of ac-
tual realitytaken in the abstract, extra-activity existencewe
have no basis for talking about a system in the sense that concerns
us here. It arises only when these objects and phenomena are in-
corporated into activity that arises as a system of content-based
social connections, subsequently transferred onto quasi-objects
and transformed in them and as the structure of activity with
these objects and phenomena. In the process of such a transfer-
ence and transformation, this system converts into a system of
quasi-objects in which the system itself undergoes a radical change.
This happens primarily due to the fact that in and of themselves,
taken in their own content-based (and formal) characteristics, quasi-
objects cannot form a system. As it applies to linguistic signs and
other quasi-objectsin which, according to Marx, material ex-
istence is absorbed by their functional existencethis thesis
takes on a somewhat different appearance: it is as if the content-
based interconnections between these quasi-objects descend to a
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lower level and become their formal connections; dislodged by
the system of content-based social connections that are trans-
ferred onto them and transformed in them. These formal relations
link up in this system to form a new, systemic, functional whole.
The difference between activity that generates a quasi-object
system and activity that generates an object system is that the
former is for the most part cognitive activity, a reflective activity,
while the latter is primarily an activity of social interaction. And
the systematicity of linguistic signs is specifically that equal ef-
fect that permits them to holdin the taken, converted form, of
courseboth the system of content-based social connections,
and the system of operations that we can potentially realize with
these signs in the activity of communication, correlating them with
specific objects and phenomena; referring to them, and substitut-
ing them, generating the selection of the most appropriate signs
(in particular, appellation), and combining them into a meaning-
ful wholean utterance.
Correspondingly, it is possible to identify two sides, two as-
pects of the ideal content of the sign. One of them is the correla-
tion of the ideal content with cognitive activity. The other is its
correlation with activity of social interaction, with the use of signs
for communication. The first dominates in those cases where we
use signs in the process of communication. Neither aspect is a
static component of content or abstract isolated units. It is as if
sign content is poured out to the side where we lean our sign.
The immediate reason for this is the incorporation of the sign into
different systems, while the reason itself is rooted in the different
nature of goals and objective problems that are solved in the pro-
cess of activity, in the differences between problem situations that
arise during that activity.
The subjective content of the sign image is not identical with
itself in different problem situations of sign usage. However this
content might be modified for a speaker of a language, which re-
mains, on the one hand, a cognitive invariant, which is dictated
by the sign content, in correlation with the system of content-
based social connections fixed in the sign;
7
and on the other hand,
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its communicative invariant, the system of operations with this
sign that is fixed in it and comprises the rules of its use within the
framework of more complex communicative structures.
The cognitive invariant of the subjective content of the sign
image, as follows from what was stated above, is that in the content
that stems from social activity is fixed in the sign, while its com-
municative invariant is what stems from activity that uses the sign.
It appears that the former is closest to what is usually called a con-
cept and the latter is exactly what is most often called meaning.
In the most general sense:
behind linguistic meanings are hidden socially developed manners
(operations) of action, in the process by which people come to know
and change objective reality. In other words, in meanings something is
representedtransformed and condensed in the material of language
the ideal form of existence of the objective world, its properties, con-
nections, and relationships, discovered through the entirety of social
practice. Therefore, meanings in and of themselves, that is, abstracted
from their functioning in individual consciousness, are just as
unpsychological as the socially known reality that underlies them.
8
Because of this they develop in accordance with sociohistorical laws
that are an outside individual consciousness. But, at the same time,
reality is presented to human consciousness as signified reality.
Meaning is a form of presentation of reality in consciousness.
In their second life, meanings become individualized and subjectified,
but only in the sense that their movement within the system of rela-
tionships of society are no longer immediately contained in them. They
enter into a different system of relationships, into another movement.
But here is what is remarkable: at the same time they do no lose any of
their sociohistorical nature, their objectivity.
9
One of the most important features of the second life of mean-
ings is their interrelatedness with sensory stimuli. In its role as the
ideal content of the sign, meaning remains extrasensory, since,
although the converted form of objective content presumes the
material of the sign, it is taken as an extra-individual, abstract for-
mation. But as soon as we switch to meaning as subjective content
of the sign, it turns out that its existence in activity and its presen-
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tation in the consciousness of the individual is inextricably tied to
material (sensory-material) interrelatedness. Meanings do not ex-
ist for every one of us outside of the subjective reflection of mate-
riality, for example, in the form of visual images or any image of
perception. But at the same time it would be a mistake to think
that such images precede meanings, and that meanings do nothing
but tag (Lenneberg) cognitive processes. As numerous studies
by Soviet psychologists demonstrate, uniquely human object per-
ception is not possible without the participation of socially devel-
oped references primarily based in language, and the process of
verbal signification in recognition . . . is understood not as a sepa-
rate processisolated from perceptionwhich then processes its
product through thought, but as a process that is incorporated into
the very activity of perception.
10
These references, which are stored in the visual system and are
not possible without language (or some other means of social an-
choring), nonetheless have a sensory nature. Experiments by V.P.
Zinchenko, for example, showed that names were assigned only
after the collation and selection of references that correspond to
images.
11
Here we are dealing with what M.S. Shekhter fortu-
itously labeled secondary images, that is, images forming as a
result of generalization, usually mediated by language. We see
a triangle, we recognize it because a generalized image of a tri-
angle has been formed in our consciousness, but the image itself
arises only as a consequence of an operation with immediate sen-
sory data and on the basis of abstract features of any triangle that
have been fixed in its linguistic form and reflected in the meaning
of the word triangle.
This materiality, this sensory nature of meaning, taken as the
subjective content of the sign, is particularly clear in the process
of meaning formation in child language acquisition. This is where
one of the components of meaning comes from, one that is reduc-
ible neither to a cognitive nor a communicative invariant: the ele-
ment in it that comes from psychological processes that stand
behind the sign in various forms of its usage in activity, specifi-
cally, the extent and means of interrelatedness between content and
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26 JOURNAL OF RUSSIAN AND EAST EUROPEAN PSYCHOLOGY
its sensory aspect, the interrelatedness of subjective content with
secondary images, with visuality. This aspect of subjective con-
tent can in certain cases (for example, in the child) take on an
uncharacteristic significance: it is as if the subjective content of
the sign image is projected onto sensory images that are related to
the sign, and which becomes deformed to the extent of their lim-
ited (in comparison with the sign) psychological capabilities. For
the subject, the sign seems to lose its ideal content, preserving
only the part of it that is fixed in the and extracted from it. And
since the sensory image, to a large extent, depends on the subjects
individual experience, the objective content of the sign is in a cer-
tain sense subjectivized, in a certain sense. A person begins to
evaluate a sign in terms of his own individual experience, to give it
those features that reflect, in essence, only the relationship of that
person to the sensory image that represents for him represents a
class of some real objects and phenomena. Below, when we speak
of sensuous coloring of subjective content, this is what we refer
to. This sensuous coloring is potentially greater in some signs than
in others.
The second component of meaning is that within the subjective
content of the sign image, which comes from various levels of
awareness and various levels of semantic explication of this con-
tent in the subjects consciousness, in the speaker of the language.
Undoubtedly, in the final analysis, both of these depend on factors
that lie beyond individual consciousness. A person is aware of and
explicates the content of a sign to the extent he needs. But the
opposite direction is also criticalin certain situations the use of
a sign is limited by the ability to explicate it (as happens, for ex-
ample, with scientific terminology). We will call this aspect of
subjective content its potential for explication, including the po-
tential depth at which it is cognized. This can also differ for
different signs.
The third component of meaning is that within the subjective
content of the sign image that derives from personal meaning and
can be called semantic coloring of this content. Here, various forms
of distortion are especially common; particularly characteristic is
the substitution of objective (ideal) content with personal mean-
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ing. The degree of semantic coloring, evidently, is largely tied to
the degree of sensuous coloring and potential explicability of the
sign: the greater the sensuous coloring and the less potential for
explication, the greater the likelihood that the meaning of a sign
will diverge from its ideal content.
The fourth component of meaning is what can be called the
sensuous coloring of the sign images subjective content. In the
historical development of the system of linguistic meanings, all of
these aspects of subjective content take on the status of factors
that effect its change.
Concerning the communicative invariant of subjective content,
it can be presented in scientific analysis as a system of types of
rules that set the boundaries of sign usage in the activity of com-
munication. What are these rules? What operations with a sign are
fixed in the sign image (however vaguely, as potential) and, con-
sequently, must be viewed as forming the subjective content of
this image?
1. Operations that are directly dictated by cognitive invariance,
that is, signs cognitive-typological features that are brought into
their usage. These are primarily rules that are warranted for a given
sign concerning situational indication and substitution. There are
types of signs (deictic signs) for which these operations almost
exhaust the communicative invariant of their subjective content.
2. Interrelation and interchange operations among signs as ele-
ments of a sign system, that is, semantic elements, in the narrow
sense of the word. As I.S. Narskii notes, they form a sort of permis-
sible circle of cases within which subject operations [that use signs
A.L.] correspond, despite all their individual differencesto a
particular meaning.
12
Operations of this sort are realized in the
mechanism of sign interchange, primarily in the rules for select-
ing semantic units for communication purposes. Specifically in
this sense the psychological structure of meaning is determined
by a system of interrelations and contrasts between words in the
process of their use in activity. It is this network of oppositions
that, through interdiction, limits and directs the process of select-
ing appropriate meanings.
13
3. Operations that combine signs into quasi-objects (signs) of a
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higher order, that is, within a signs semantics that is connected
with the semantics of the utterance and represents compressed rules
(that are attributed by us to the sign in question) of transition be-
tween sign and utterance.
14
Operations of the second and third type can, in turn, be fixed in
different ways in the sign. They can be content based, that is, they
can enter the subjective content of the sign image of the speaker
(or listener). For example, in isolating-type languages, rules for
sign organization within an utterance are reduced to the organiza-
tion of the corresponding semantic classes. But they can also be
formal. In languages such as Russian, operations on formally gram-
matically marked classes of signs dominate the rules of utterance
structuring. This characteristic is marginal for their subjective con-
tent and is relatively independent in relation to this content.
In our previous analysis we purposely ignored, or at least
avoided, the fact that a meaning of a sign appears not simply in the
speech activity of a particular individual and in a particular situa-
tion (or, correspondingly, in a particular activity, which is not cen-
tral here, as use of language in any nonspeech activity has as its
necessary prerequisite actual or potential communicative use). The
sign is a part and a condition of the processes of communication
as one of the aspects of social interaction among people as mem-
bers of a class or society overall. Contemporary psycholinguistics,
as a rule, loses sight of that aspect of the problem, something that
is associated with the treatment of communication itself by for-
eign (and Soviet, in some cases) science usually as interindividual
communication aimed at conveying information.
15
For this very
reason, [in psycholinguistics today] speech is usually treated in
the spirit of K. Bhlers famous scheme,
16
according to which the
task of the speaker consists in conveying information about some
objects and phenomena of the real world in a form allowing this
information to be appropriately received by the listener.
Be that as it may, only an approach based on the perspective of
the psychology of communication can give us the key to correctly
interpreting the nature of meaning and its interrelation with other
philosophical and psychological categories. V.N. Voloshinov was
correct when he wrote almost a half century ago, Meaning is not
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in the word or in the soul of the speaker, and not in the soul of the
listener. Meaning is the effect of the interaction between the speaker
and the listener on the material of the given sound complex. . . .
Only the flow of speech communication sheds light of meaning
on a word.
17
Notes
1. See E.V. Ilenkov [Ilyenkov], Idealnoe, in Filosofskaia entsiklopediia,
vol. 2 (Moscow, 1962); A. Poltoratskii and V. Shvyrev, Znak i deiatelnost (Mos-
cow, 1970); A.M. Korshunov, Teoriia otrazheniia i tvorchestvo (Moscow, 1971);
M.K. Mamardashvili, Forma prevrashchennaia, in Filosofskaia entsiklopediia,
vol. 5 (Moscow, 1970), and Analiz soznaniia v rabotakh Marksa, Voprosy
filosofii, 1968, no. 6.
2. Ilenkov, Idealnoe, p. 224.
3. Ibid., pp. 22021.
4. K. Marks [Marx] and F. Engels [Engels], Sochineniia, vol. 23, p. 140.
5. Ilenkov, Idealnoe, p. 224.
6. Korshunov, Teoriia otrazheniia i tvorchestvo, pp. 18081.
7. This system is not always fully reflected in the subjective content of the
sign. It would be more accurate to say that it is never adequately reflected in it.
8. A.N. Leontev, Deitelnost i soznanie, Voprosy filosofii, 1972, no. 12,
p. 134.
9. Ibid., p. 136.
10. A.N. Leontev and Iu.B. Gippenreiter, O deiatelnosti zritelnoi sistemy
cheloveka, in Psikhologicheskie issledovaniia (Moscow, 1968), p. 19.
11. V.P. Zinchenko, Produktivnoe vospriiatie, Voprosy psikhologii, 1971,
no. 6, p. 40.
12. I.S. Narskii, Kritika neopozitivistskikh kontseptsii znacheniia, in
Problema znacheniia v lingvistike i logike (Moscow, 1963), pp. 1516.
13. A.A. Brudnii, Znachenie slova i psikhologiia protivopostavlenii, in
Semanticheskaia struktura slova (Moscow, 1971), p. 22.
14. This is how we arrived at a system that on the surface coincides with the
known differentiation between semantic, pragmatic, and syntactic meanings.
However, our content-based interpretation of this differentiation is entirely dif-
ferent from its traditional interpretation.
15. See A.A. Leontev [Leontiev], Psikhologiia obshcheniia (Tartu, 1974).
16. K. Bhler, Sprachtheorie (Jena, 1934).
17. V.N. Voloshinov, Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka (Leningrad, 1929), p. 123.
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